The rise of social media "woke-ness"

Jon & Caroline | Ink-Stained Hearts

Are your outrage and support only skin-deep?

What do these social media hashtags have in common?


Not too difficult, I hope. They all mark a means to support social movements fighting injustice and inequality, a national focus on the pandemic crisis, or recognising the work of the UK’s National Health Service during COVID-19.

All important causes worthy of ongoing support and recognition, and just a few of many campaigns or movements vying for our awareness and pushing for change.

They also have something less favourable in common — they get hijacked by companies, organisations and individuals who use them to curry favour, promote themselves or act as a distraction technique from other matters.

A different kind of “woke”

Whether it was George Floyd’s killing in 2020, the social responses to the challenge of COVID-19 or solidarity with the Pride movement, I noticed a troubling trend last year.

Among the rallies, demands for change, profile-raising, and recognition of the altruistic care of others, “support” appeared in a new way.

Companies and organisations would issue public statements condemning racism, trumpeting gay and LGBTQ rights, and praising the NHS. Celebrity selfies with a symbol of support appeared. Social media profile images had messages of support added to them. The entire world was coming together to recognise and fight injustice. Or so it seemed.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the need to come together, to show solidarity, to raise our voices in opposition and call out injustice when we see it. I welcome this. But I couldn’t help wondering whether corporate companies, driven by their bottom line, but now with a new sense of social justice, had other motives.

Had some individuals been “woken” from their apathy or lack of awareness and shaken into action? Or were they trying to fit in with the crowd?

It was only this week I found out the name for what I was witnessing.

Performative allyship

Are we doing more harm than good?

We should applaud support for movements championing injustice for marginalised communities or recognising the care of others. Companies should confirm or reaffirm racial intolerance in the workplace is not acceptable. We need to recognise healthcare workers and their value to society, it’s the least they deserve.

But when these stances, statements and support are nothing but superficial lip service that’s when we need to worry. That is why performative allyship can be as corrosive as the injustices themselves or as unhelpful as disingenuous praise.

One commentator describes performative allyship as:

Where those with privilege, profess solidarity with a cause. This assumed solidarity is usually vocalized, disingenuous and potentially harmful to marginalized groups. Often, the performative ally professes allegiance in order to distance themselves from potential scrutiny.

In contrast, we characterise allyship as those in a position of privilege who offer genuine and ongoing support alongside marginalised groups.

So what’s the problem?

Whether it is racial equality and equity, the rights of the LGBTQ community, humanitarian calls for COVID-19 victims, or raising up the value of healthcare workers, words without action are meaningless.

If we don’t follow promises and support for change into action, we raise expectations which are then dashed, leading to greater demoralisation.

Recent research shows how this filters through to the workplace in damaging ways. This includes organisations calling for racial or gender equity, for example, but still having white and male-dominated leadership teams. Put alongside this if there is any collection, sharing and discussion of the data on these issues, and if promises turn into action. If the answer is no, then this is classic performative allyship in action.

If you take it a step further, workers may feel their working environment is not a safe space to voice their genuine concerns or support and fall into line with tokenism. Fears of repercussions from speaking up will lead to inertia, superficial gestures and hollow outcomes.

Evidence also suggests a sudden surge of support for a moral crusade may be an attempt to either distract from scrutiny over poor practice, or to avoid looking bad, on a personal or professional level, and to enhance your brand by showing solidarity.

Unscrupulous brand hijacking and “woke washing”

Although the exact origins are in question, there is still some truth in the quote:

“All publicity is good publicity.”

This may be less relevant today than when first coined with 24/7 access to information online and the potential lifespan of negative digital content, but brand hijacking introduces a new twist on this.

Brands may have a legitimate reason to use a social justice issue or an era-defining moment such as the killing of George Floyd. This could be to build momentum in a complementary activity supporting their “brand values” such as an active programme addressing racism and improving the diversity of staff.

Where this is problematic is when brands hijack a cause not to commit to supporting or addressing it, but to bolster their profits. A new term — “woke washing” — is becoming popular to describe this practice:

When brands cash in on consumers’ intentions to be socially aware to raise their own profits.

Not only is this a hollow symbol of support, it doesn’t even get as far as performative allyship where they may be sympathy or empathy, but no further action. Money drives this. Pure and simple.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, how many organisations promised much and delivered little?

It may be too soon to tell, but we need to pay attention.

Are we all suffering from the herd mentality?

On a personal level, how many of us state our support for injustice or recognition for extraordinary acts and then forget it the moment we’ve done so and post a picture of our cat to Facebook or Instagram?

Was the blacking out of your social media profile image on Blackout Tuesday because you oppose racism and police brutality, or that you intend to do something about it — in whatever way you can?

Did you add a frame to your Facebook profile to thank UK NHS workers, or have you told an actual worker this and petitioned for more than the paltry 1% pay rise offer despite their sacrifices?

This may sound harsh, and there will be plenty who have both “talked the talk and walked the walk”, both as an individual and in terms of an organisation’s actions.

I’m not criticising you, but ask yourself what your motives were and what you have done since declaring support for a cause. Or were you or your organisation just following the crowd and doing it because you had to be seen to?

This lies at the heart of performative allyship. Support has to be more than a “performance”.

Call out the issues and superficial support

This behaviour goes wider than social media, we see it on shop windows, the sides of buses, any manner of advertising, and they all follow a similar approach.

The educational think tank, Policy Exchange, identifies several indicators of this on social media, but the principles stand true elsewhere.

  1. Simplicity and brand association — only scratching the surface of an issue and appearing concerned but not exploring the genuine problem. The brand or individual will also have prominence.
  2. Moral indignation and outrage — don’t just be angry, do something about it! Policy Exchange suggests the demonstration of shock at racism which is experienced by so many communities and known to exist is an indicator of privilege.
  3. “It’s nothing to do with me guv” — a failure to recognise any personal responsibility for being part of a system that has led to some form of marginalisation and not challenging it.
  4. Praise and affirmation by others — your statement of outrage at racist behaviour got 100 likes! But what are you and those who like it doing next?

I don’t know what to do!

Let me stress, there is nothing wrong with supporting an issue on social media, or changing your profile picture to show solidarity, or wearing a bracelet for a particular cause.

But next time an issue enrages or motivates you, think beyond the quick “social media fix” which takes a fraction of the time it took to read this article. Consider what you might do beyond this and how you can be a genuine ally of the marginalised. Treat “brands” and “celebrities” with a healthy dose of cynicism and see whether they “walk the walk” or just “talk the talk”.

Unless we do this, nothing will really change as one final example shows. We have seen many anti-racism campaigns in soccer: Kick it Out; Show Racism the Red Card and Taking the Knee. All great and needed initiatives, but has racism in sport gone? Far from it. There is still much to do across society.

As the Policy Exchange puts it, activism and support don’t begin and end with a hashtag!

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